Pres. Trump’s decision to accept Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights is a mistake, as was Israel’s initial decision to annex. Israel conquered that territory in the 1967 war, and, when fighting ceased, the defeated Arab combatants announced their “three noes”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. Syria continues to adhere to that policy. Thus, it has never agreed to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel ending that war.
Because there is no peace agreement, international law permits Israel to occupy the Golan, but it is not permitted to annex it. If Syria never agrees to a peace agreement, Israel may lawfully occupy the Golan forever. Moreover, Israel’s security is not enhanced in any way by its claim of sovereignty over the Golan; the number of tanks or troops it can position in the area is not increased one iota by “sovereignty” rather than “occupation”. Legal terms do not affect military formations.
Starting in the last century, the United States has led the effort to establish a rules-based legal system of international relations, and one rule that has evolved is that a nation may not permanently acquire territory by military conquest. It is true that this rule is most obviously just when territory has been conquered by an aggressor nation. Israel’s part in the 1967 war was defensive. Still, because international law permits Israel to continue its occupation indefinitely until a peace agreement is reached, the occupation both (a) punishes Syria for its aggression, and (b) provides Israel enormous leverage in negotiating a peace agreement, if and when Syria ever decides to negotiate.
Some commentators say that Trump’s decision will notify the Palestinians that time is not on their side, but relatively recent history might indicate otherwise. In 2016, Pres. Obama decided not to veto U.N. Security Council Res. 2334, which reversed U.S. policy on territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Prior to Res. 2334, it was U.S. policy that Israel must withdraw from the West Bank only if it reaches an agreement with the Palestinians on a new border; Res. 2334 provides that Israel must withdraw from the West Bank unless it reaches an agreement with the Palestinians on a new border. After permitting Res. 2334 to be adopted, the Obama administration (falsely) insisted that U.S. policy had not changed. With this history, the Palestinians might well decide to wait out Trump’s term and hope that the next administration will be friendlier.
If Pres. Trump truly wishes to “shake up” the Palestinians and the moribund peace process, there is no need to flout international law. Instead, he should simply tell the truth, which is something that is rarely done on the international stage, particularly when it concerns the Palestinians.
The truth is that “the Palestinians”—who always claim to be one nation united in its national aspirations, etc.—are two very different groups, each with its own ruler. One group lives in Gaza and is ruled by the Hamas terrorist organization, which has amassed a large arsenal of rockets that sporadically are fired into Israeli populated areas. Hamas also digs attack tunnels under the border separating Gaza from Israel, and it organizes weekly demonstrations/riots (depending on your point of view) on that border.
The other Palestinian group lives in the West Bank and is nominally ruled by the Palestinian National Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas (who is now in the fourteenth year of his four-year term as “president” of the P.N.A.). There is little doubt that Hamas would violently seize control of the West Bank from Abbas, as it seized control of Gaza in 2007, were it not for protection Israel provides to Abbas and the P.N.A. Abbas has not set foot in Gaza since 2007 because he probably fears, with very good reason, that terrorists would assassinate him if they had the chance.
The international community has for years recited the mantra that Abbas is a genuine partner for peace. But, regardless of Abbas’ subjective desires, this mantra is objectively false. The fighters and weapons that threaten Israel’s security are in Gaza and are controlled by Hamas. Hamas sincerely believes that all pious Muslims have an obligation to obliterate Jewish control over “Islamic land”; it seeks the destruction of Israel. A peace treaty signed by Abbas would be worthless, because he has no control whatsoever over Hamas. And Hamas itself would never sign a peace treaty with Israel, because it would be un-Islamic to do so. So, unless and until Abbas and his P.N.A. summon the strength and the will to wrest the weapons from the terrorists in Gaza, there can be no peace. Those are the facts, and Pres. Trump would do the whole world a great favor by stating them clearly and unequivocally.